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The Excelling Historical Document – Film and the Historian: The British Experience by Philip Gillett

They Came to a City

They Came to a City (1944)

A Book Review by Tony Williams.

Some months ago, I struggled through a book about remembering British Television published by the BFI. My dissatisfaction with the contents stemmed from my feeling that it represented a theoretical top-down approach showing very little evidence of necessary field work whose empirical (a bad word in those days of Screen theory!) approach supposedly separated a pragmatic British world of scholarship from the promise of liberating worlds of theory espoused by post-68 Film Theory. Things have changed now. While Screen remains today championing less the “Blitzkrieg” Waffen SS claims of Althusser and Lacan (termed “intellectual terrorism” by its victims), skeptical critics such as Noel Carroll and Bordwell and Thompson have led to more attention being given to the base aspects of historical research rather than erecting superstructural castles in the air lacking adequate foundations for their dubious supremacy.

With these thoughts in mind, I acclaim another book by independent scholar Philip Gillett who examines historical foundations conditioning post-war British cinema with attention given to archive resources and scholastic data provided by contemporary scholars engaged in archival research. Divided into seventeen chapters following a preface and concluding with notes, index, and bibliography, the book covers a wide area, including cinematic representations of the postwar period; intimations of a changing society; escape to fantasy; the dark secrets of the mind; the country; the forgotten war; crimes of passion; the changing face of crime; depictions of science; images of children; sports; gambling; legal images; disappointing relationship; film audiences; and the problematic issues involving using film for historical research.

Despite feelings concerning the relationship between a director’s intention and audience response, how does one test this proposition? Did disparate audiences or members of the same audience share the same values? Was there unanimity between those writing newspaper editorials demonizing rioting Teddy Boys during screenings of Rock Around the Clock (1956) and Teddy Boys and cinema staff themselves assuming they were interviewed for their responses?

Enough time has lapsed for the methodological problems of using film in historical research to become apparent. One issue already noted is the disparity between film studies and history. For the cinephile the historian’s critical approach helps to guard against the pitfalls of venturing into the past including a reliance on receive3d judgements and a tendency to adopt today’s viewpoint when viewing a film. For the historian a catholic approach to sources overcomes the straitjacket of documents. (3)

0848196_film-and-the-historian_300Fully aware of the pitfalls of theory leading to infighting and “employing an overly theoretical approach at the cost of readability” (3), Gillett considers more mundane, yet important, questions. “Did viewers actually draw the conclusions historians have assumed?” (4). Did they understand the warnings in Dr. Strangelove (1963) or regard it “as a vehicle for Peter Sellers” (5)? Were wartime warnings in Next of Kin (1942) heeded or did audiences enjoy it “simply as a suspense story” (5)? How does one interpret a feature film dramatizing history? Whether documentary or historical reconstruction many aspects of the past remain unknown. Nevertheless, while we fill in the past, assumptions must be made explicit (12). Although film is one source among others for historians, it raises specific problems whether involving agendas for particular newsreels or unconscious stereotyped images governing countryside depictions. Difficulties need recognition and examination during initial stages of historical research.

As in his previous work, Forgotten British Film: Value and the Ephemeral of Postwar Cinema (2017), in Film and the Historian: The British Experience (Cambridge Scholars, 2019) Gillett often focuses upon many lesser-known films but excavates their significance with plausible arguments and well-documented research. The aftermath of war proved to be a brief time of rejoicing before confronting issues of the post-war era as well as issues inherited from the 1930s. As well as familiar works such as Waterloo Road (1944), The Years Between (1946), Silent Dust (1946), and Frieda (1947), Gillett also covers little explored films. These include It’s Hard to be Good (1948), Young Wives’ Tale (1951) and the neo-realist Children of Chance (1949) shot in Italy by neo-realist director Mario Zampi with English-speaking actors, that provide different images of the problematic post-war period. Like other chapters, Gillett provides contemporary and historical sources of documentation to support his arguments.

The mid-40s to early 50s were known as “The Age of Austerity” with food rationing intermittently continuing until 1954. Films can thus provide some visual details about the slow development of consumerism leading to Harold MacMillan’s Conservative logo of “You’ve never had it so good” associating his Party with affluence and dredging up Labour’s post-war associations with austerity. I remember one 50s poster showing a happy (white, of course!) family with the caption – “Life’s better with the Conservatives. Don’t let Labour Ruin it”. Chapter Three, “Intimations of a Changing Society” cover several films that show such changes both in terms of set and visual design. The highly popular Genevieve (1953) dealing with a vintage car is one such example.

Audiences could envy a lifestyle with leisure, pleasure and no pressing money problems. Technicolor makes it look alluring, though the film was intended to be shot in black and white. This might have shifted attention from the photogenic cars to the arguments. (50)

At the end of this chapter Gillett supplies his rationale for using film as history responsibly with well-documented and reliable source material that appear in his notes to each chapter.

Novels capture shifting relationships, photographs show the appearance of people and places, but film is unrivaled in allowing the historian to observe the minutiae of everyday life such as what people wore at home and at work, what they ate and how homes were furnished. Housing shortages affected people’s lives, but appreciating the reality of the situation for young couples requires looking at films not as stories, but as sources of information. (55)

This, of course, represents a different way of looking at film from the manner it is usually taught. However, it needs to be conducted in a more fluid and less reductive manner. A former student told me about a history professor who ran films to poke at historical inaccuracies. Yet, while I concede that General Gordon and the Mahdi never actually met as they do in Basil Dearden’s Khartoum (1965), isn’t this rather negligible in contrast to the delivery of two different acting styles? Charlton Heston’s Gordon easily wins over the more flamboyant delivery of Sir Laurence Olivier in his blackface Othello (1965) persona.

However, this book covers many British films, some needing more attention such as Dearden’s They Came to a City (1945) that contains the utopian aspirations about a change in society that led to the Welfare State, though Gillett is aware both of the film’s actual flaws and the failure of the post-war Labour government to realize many of its premises (59-60). With Boris Johnson likely to become the next U.K. Prime Minister pledged to “reform” the National Health Service, this film (and others) will have value as an historical record of not what was lost but really what people apathetically allowed to be taken away.

This book has much to recommend it, especially in incorporating Sue Harper’s investigation of 1940s box-office records in a Portsmouth Cinema as documented in her “Fragmentation and Crisis: 1940s admission figures at the Region Cinema, Portsmouth, UK” from Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 9.2 (1989): 181-188, along with other reliable critical and historical resources. It interrogates each cinematic text fairly and incisively pointing out achievements as well as flaws in the best manner of critical historical research revealing that both disciplines are not contradictory but complementary if used in the appropriate responsible manner. Chapter sixteen’s survey of “The Cinema Audience” and the methodology needed to use this often, neglected, but important, source of information becomes an indispensable guide especially when Gillett mentions his own, often problematic, venture into this area when seeking interviewees who attended the cinema during the 1940s and 1950s. Some films are less historically grounded in nature but more fantasies catering to audience demands for escapism during a particular era and the differences between the illusion of reality and a cinematic reality that is really fantasy must receive appropriate objective recognition according to the critical tools and sources of information available to anyone embarking on work in this area.

As Gillett recognizes in his concluding chapter, “History Though Film,” “(h)istorians are interlopers in the dream palace. Films were not made for them, so there are tantalizing omissions in the subjects covered” (192-193). Yet he also affirms, “The rigour the historian employs in approaching documents should be applied to film” (192). This is important concerning crucial questions each researcher should ask to avoid the pitfalls of accepting what appears to be the easy answer. This is a valuable book in the area it covers full of interesting cinematic examples, some previously neglected, others not, but all subject to a rigorous type of analysis and interpretation all too rare in certain areas of academia today. On the back cover of this book, the author describes himself as an “independent film researcher,” one who has excavated documents in many university and public libraries and has clearly seen the films he discusses. We need more people like this, especially as the Arts and Humanities struggle for their very existence today. However, both this author and Tyneside-based independent press Cambridge Scholars Publishing will still be there to continue the type of intellectual work now under threat by politicians and university administrators.

Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Author of Structures of Desire: British Cinema 1939-1955 (2000), he is also a Contributing Editor to Film International.

Read also:

A Tradition All Its Own – Forgotten British Film: Value and the Ephemeral in Postwar Cinema by Philip Gillett

All in the Method – Remembering British Television: Audience and Industry by Kristyn Gorton and Joanne Garde Hansen

 

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